March 19, 2011


[Restoring power at the reactor could provide a glimmer of hope after days of increasingly dire news that now includes contaminated food. Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said that spinach and milk were the only two products that were found with abnormally high levels of radioactive materials. The newly discovered radioactivity contained in the average amount of spinach and milk consumed during an entire year would be equal to the amount received in a single CAT scan. (Please check here for Japan's assessment of global spread of radiation. ED) ]  

TOKYO — The government said on Saturday that they had found higher than normal levels of radioactive materials in spinach and milk at farms near the ravaged nuclear power plants, the first confirmation by officials that the nuclear crisis unfolding at power plants nearby has affected the nation’s food supply.
While officials downplayed the immediate risks to consumers, the findings are likely to further unsettle a nation worried about the long-term effects of the damaged nuclear power plants. The crisis, which has entered its second week, has caused alarm in some countries that fallout from Japan might reach their shores.
Tokyo Electric Power Company, with help from the Japan Self-Defense Force, police and firefighters, continued efforts to cool the damaged reactors on Saturday. About 500 workers from the utility connected a transmission line almost a mile long to Reactor No. 2 at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Station. They there on Sunday.
Restoring power at the reactor could provide a glimmer of hope after days of increasingly dire news that now includes contaminated food. Yukio Edano, the chief cabinet secretary, said that spinach and milk were the only two products that were found with abnormally high levels of radioactive materials. The newly discovered radioactivity contained in the average amount of spinach and milk consumed during an entire year would be equal to the amount received in a single CAT scan.
“These levels do not pose an immediate threat to your health,” Mr. Edano said, adding that the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry would provide additional details. “Please stay calm.”
The government is considering conducting more comprehensive tests of agricultural products from areas further away from the damaged reactors to address public anxiety about the country’s food supply, he said.
Food safety inspectors said that the amount of iodine-131 found in the tested milk was five times higher than levels deemed safe. They said that the iodine found in the spinach was more than seven times higher. The spinach also contained slightly higher amounts of cesium-137.
Iodine-131 and cesium-137 are two of the more dangerous elements that are feared to have been released from the plants in Fukushima. Iodine-131 can be dangerous to human health, especially if absorbed through milk and milk products, because it can accumulate in the thyroid and cause cancer. Cesium-137 can damage cells and lead to an increased risk of cancer.
Health inspectors are still trying to determine whether any spinach had been shipped from the six farms in Ibaraki Prefecture where the contaminated produce was found, according to Taku Ohara, an official in the food safety division of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. No contaminated milk had been shipped from the three farms where higher than normal radioactive levels had been detected.
Mr. Ohara said that Japan is particularly strict in determining what constitutes safe radioactive levels. It is also fastidious in inspecting food imported from China and other countries. Leafy spinach is especially susceptible to absorbing radioactive material, Mr. Ohara said.
Asparagus, cucumbers, radish, tomatoes and other vegetables are also grown in Fukushima, but have not been found to be contaminated. However, only a small number of farms have been tested because officials have been overwhelmed in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear crisis that followed, Mr. Ohara said.
The government has not banned shipments of milk or spinach from the affected areas, but it would further study the issue, Mr. Edano said. The milk that contained higher levels of radioactive material was tested at farms about 19 miles from the hobbled nuclear plants in Fukushima Prefecture. The spinach was found in Ibaraki Prefecture farther south.
Though land-poor Japan imports much of the fruit, grain and soybeans that it consumes, 79 percent of the vegetables eaten here are grown domestically. Japan is the largest net importer of food in the world.
A handful of vegetable shop owners in Tokyo interviewed on Saturday said they were concerned about the impact of the nuclear crisis on their supplies, but they continued to sell vegetables from Fukushima and Ibaraki because they have not been told otherwise.
However, the news of the contamination had an immediate impact on consumers. Katsuko Sato, 76, said she would stop buying spinach and, after watching Mr. Edano’s news conference, she called her family and friends to urge them not to, either.
“Everything that we are going through now is a lot scarier than the bombing attacks during World War II,” she said. “I’m not going to believe the government because I don’t think only spinach from Ibaraki will be affected.”
There have been no reports of contaminated fish or meat.
Many of the ports, fleets and processing facilities in Tohoku, the area most affected by the tsunami and nuclear crisis, were so badly damaged that no fish or seafood has reached Tsukiji market in central Tokyo, according to the market’s general manager, Tsutomo Kosaka. The market handles 90 percent of the seafood for about 40 million consumers in the greater Tokyo area.
Japan’s leading producers of premium beef, including the world-famous Kobe brand, said Saturday that they had not yet tested their cattle or feed. But they were nervous about the possible spread of radiation from Fukushima.
“Even though the government hasn’t mentioned the possibility of contamination of beef, we should start testing to convince people the beef is safe,” said Hiroshi Uchida, a former professor of agriculture who is director of the national cattle museum in Iwate Prefecture, about 150 miles north of the damaged reactors in Fukushima. “We need scientific proof and hard data to protect the beef brand.”
While only spinach and milk were found to have radioactive materials above established limits, some countries have been testing food imports from Japan since the day after the quake and tsunami. In Hong Kong, for instance, 216 Japanese products passed food-quality screenings, including meat, fish, fruits and vegetables.
In Japan, the damage to the reactors has reduced the electricity supply in the greater Tokyo region, leading to rolling blackouts that has slowed business activity.
The government is rushing to find a way to cool the damaged reactors in Fukushima to prevent a full-scale meltdown. In a news conference Saturday, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa said that temperatures outside the four hobbled nuclear reactors in Fukushima were lower than expected, but he was unable to confirm how hot it was inside the damaged buildings, leaving open the possibility that nuclear fuel may still be overheating.
Temperatures were below 212 degrees Fahrenheit based on readings taken by firefighters from the Self-Defense Force that drove trucks with water cannons to within about 60 feet of the No. 3 reactor on Friday.
Mr. Kitazawa said that the temperature readings had increased hopes that the nuclear fuel could be kept cool through further efforts to spray the reactors with water, while technicians worked on restoring power to the cooling systems.
“What we are ultimately working toward is getting to a point where water is continuously pouring into the reactors,” he said, adding that engineers were also working to find a way to assess water levels inside the reactors, which were currently unapproachable by workers because of high levels of radiation.
The National Police Agency said on Saturday that there were nearly 7,200 confirmed deaths so far, and nearly 11,000 people remained missing. Authorities have said they expect the final death toll to exceed 10,000.
Mark McDonald and Ayasa Aizawa contributed reporting.


[And this week, as thousands of the nation’s Twitterati gathered at the annual South by Southwest technology and music festival in Austin, Tex., their exhaustive, real-time accounts of barbecue, beta tests and Jake Gyllenhaal sightings have prompted a backlash by those not in attendance.] 
@emilyolson: And ... I’m eating a taco next to Danny DeVito. #sxsw
@jacobwe: Should I go to Google Party? Tired, but also hungry. #Davos
Twitter users are tiring of it: the sharp pang of envy that comes when someone they are following on the social networking site is clearly having a better time than they are — right now.
Recent tweets from attendees at elite conferences like TED and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, have prompted bitter ripostes, accusing the authors of showing off rather than sharing. (From @davewiner: “can’t breathe their air, don’t want their tweets.”) Even those tweeting from warm weather spots have felt the jealous wrath — or “jealz,” in Twitter shorthand— of followers stuck in frosty climes. (@Courtni_ROSE: “I get it already!!!!”)
And this week, as thousands of the nation’s Twitterati gathered at the annual South by Southwest technology and music festival in Austin, Tex., their exhaustive, real-time accounts of barbecue, beta tests and Jake Gyllenhaal sightings have prompted a backlash by those not in attendance.
“It feels like high school,” tweeted @JillVanWyke, who teaches journalism in Des Moines, as tweets from other journalism professors rolled in from Austin. “All the cool kids are at a cool party, and I’m home on a Fri night.”
Even as Twitter says half a million people a day are signing up for the service, some of its most devoted users are warning that the tantalizing window it provides on the lives of friends, colleagues, rivals and celebrities can have a downside. In a blog entry, Caterina Fake, the co-founder of the photo-sharing sight Flickr, called the anxiety produced by the technology “fear of missing out,” or FOMO.
“If you didn’t know that party was going on, you’d be home contentedly reading your latest New Yorker,” Ms. Fake wrote. “But since you do, you hungrily watch each new tweet.”
The festival, where Twitter first caught on four years ago, mixes new technology with music, film screenings and forecasts of the future of media.
Ms. Fake, who stayed home, said she noticed tweets from people at one party in Austin who wished they were at another party that friends were tweeting about from across town.
Disenchanted with the vicarious version, some Twitter users installed “not at sxsw,” software designed to block tweets tagged with the festival’s moniker, which were emanating from Austin at a rate of 110 per minute, according to one measurement. Others have banished the most egregious offenders for good.
“Take one #sxsw, mix in 3 parts oversharing, 2 parts vanity, and unfollow liberally,” advised Jonathan Hersh, 26, a software developer in San Francisco, invoking the hashtag symbol used to categorize tweets so they are easier to search for by subject.
While anyone with a Twitter account can “follow” any other user, the chosen can also be “unfollowed” with the click of a mouse. Some festival goers, aware that they might be alienating their Twitter fan base, sought to pacify them: “To my followers who don’t care about SXSW,” one graphic designer apologized. “Please don’t unfollow me.”
But many users have been loath to edit anyone out of the network they have hand-selected, perhaps a testament to the power of what is often referred to, with affection, as the Twitter “hive mind.” As in: “Does anyone in Hive Mind have access to a photograph of Doris Kearns Goodwin wearing a Boston Red Sox Hat?” or “Good Morning, hive mind.”
Zac Morris, 26, tweeted a threat to block messages from South by Southwest, but then backtracked. “I don’t want to miss anything important,” said Mr. Morris, who relies on the hive for a mix of news, voyeurism, self-promotion and camaraderie. “Even if it pains me.”
That pain, some Twitterverse inhabitants say, stems from the immediacy of the tweeted experience, relayed in 140-character increments — often by cellphone — as events unfold.
Without Twitter, Melody Lau, 20, a music writer in Toronto, might never have known when her friends were “eating wicked food down in Austin and I’m here and it’s snowing,” she noted.
And if she did hear about it when they returned a week later, the envy quotient would have dissipated with time. Moreover, unlike blog posts or articles on a Web site, tweets appear in what users call “my timeline” and seem more personal, even when they are being sent to hundreds.
“The ‘you are there’ feeling is more powerful with Twitter,” said Marc Smith, a sociologist who studies social networks, admitting to a jealous twinge himself as he measured festival tweets from his office in Belmont, Calif. “So it raises the ‘wish you were there’ response more powerfully.”
If some blame the nature of the technology, others say Twitter envy is stoked by tone-deaf tweeters.
“Note to self,’’ started one #sxsw tweet, reminding the author — and several hundred of her far-flung followers —to be sure to try a trendy barbecue spot.
“How is that useful?” fumed Art Allen, 26, a Web consultant home in Minneapolis.
The comedian John Hodgman’s tweet from the TED conference this month that getting a massage had caused him to miss a good panel (“B Gates put together an amazing line up”) was of the type that prompted Jeffrey Zeldman to complain that TED tweeters “aren’t sharing knowledge,” but rather “letting you know they’re at TED and reminding you you’re not.” (“Retweeted” by many of Mr. Zeldman’s 156,000 followers, the post seemed to strike a chord.)
Against the backdrop of the disasters in Japan, some accused Austin tweeters of particular insensitivity: “My Twitter feed is a mix of Japan news and name-dropping drunk people at #sxsw parties,” @saldarji wrote.
Still, some critics admit that they may just be feeling a little sorry for themselves.
“When so many people you know are at an invite-only affair that you weren’t invited to, it makes you wonder how they could possibly have so much fun without you,” said Dave Winer, a software developer who had vowed to unfollow tweeters from the Davos conference.
With Twitter users now generating a billion tweets a week, some might prefer uninhibited boasters to practitioners of the “#humblebrag,” who try to disguise self-promotion with self-deprecation — usually not well. The practice has earned its own hashtag, as well as a tweeter devoted to exposing prime examples. (“Doesn’t matter that I run a 5K a day at the gym — I still can’t lose those last few pounds!”)
Jacob Weisberg, the editor in chief of the Slate Group, who tweeted as @jacobwe about a Google party in the Swiss Alps, regrets that his post might have sounded a bit self-satisfied. But Twitter’s appeal lies in the access it provides to people’s stream of consciousness, he noted. “The occasional misjudgments are a part of it,” he said.
Emily Olson, who was in Austin to promote her company, ’Foodzie, said tweeting about seeing Danny DeVito at the taco bar was an instinctive desire to share the moment: “It wasn’t much more than, ‘That’s awesome.’ ”
Not every tweet from the music fans who displaced the social media set as the festival wore on was about the awesome fireworks at the Strokes show.
One attendee tweeted a link to a picture of one hipster sporting what she suggested was an unfortunate fashion choice. It was, wrote @annielohr, a friend, “your first #sxsw tweet that didn’t make me wish I was there.”